Mirta Pagnucci experienced her first language immersion at the age of 9, when her family moved from Italy to the U.S.
"I was put in a fourth-grade class with all English speakers and no language support," she said. "ESL was not yet offered and there were no other non-speakers of English in the school. The teacher put me in the back of the classroom and I sat there for the rest of the year never speaking, and not knowing what I was supposed to do most of the time. The following year, I was back in fourth grade but this time I understood English and began to speak it. According to my parents, within a year of moving to the U.S., I was fluent in English, and they counted on me to help them out."
It was this experience that led Pagnucci to study and teach languages. She took French and Latin in high school and majored in French and in English in college, even studying abroad at the Sorbonne in Paris during the summer of 1968. Shortly after graduating with a teaching certificate in secondary education, she began teaching English and French in a middle school in Madison, Wis. At the same time, she began taking classes in English, French and Italian literature at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
When she was offered a teaching assistantship in Italian, Pagnucci combined her interest in literature with her love of languages and completed an M.A. in Comparative Literature. Next came a Ph.D. in Italian and French Literature. She continued her studies of foreign languages with Spanish and in 2008 taught English at the Universidad de Cuyo as a Fulbright Exchange teacher in Mendoza, Argentina. In 2013, she completed a professional exchange with an English professor from Xi’an, China, and visited her university in May for several weeks.
In addition to her studies, Pagnucci always taught. Her career spans almost all levels, from middle school through universities, and many subjects, including English, French, Italian, Spanish and Foreign Language Methods. She taught at the University of Houston and then at Rice University, where she was also a Resident Assistant; she taught French at Oak Park and River Forest High School, where she served for 19 years as the Chair of World Languages and where she initiated programs in Italian and Japanese; and she was an instructor at Northern Illinois University, where her husband is the Associate Dean in the College of Law, and taught French, Italian and Spanish.
"As a student, I always looked up to my teachers and thought what an accomplishment it would be to become a teacher one day myself," she said. "Once I achieved that goal and entered the classroom, I found the excitement and stimulation of working with students to be immensely rewarding. I enjoy the opportunity of learning new methodologies and technologies in the teaching of languages. I continue to search and experiment with ways to create an atmosphere of immersion and engagement in the language classroom. I want the students to learn to speak the language and enjoy the class as much as I do."
Pagnucci wants her students to broaden their perspectives on the world through the insights into other cultures, which they can achieve through learning languages.
"I hope they are overwhelmed with the excitement and satisfaction of learning," she said. "I hope to ignite a lifelong desire to keep learning. At COD I am directing two study abroad programs (France and Italy), which I strongly support. If I could, I would personally fund scholarships for all of my students because I have seen how these programs truly change lives."
While inspired by teachers, Pagnucci ultimately finds inspiration in her students and their desire to learn, broaden their minds and achieve.
"I have had the privilege to work with many, many wonderful students over the years," she said. "Many have come from families where not everyone had the advantages of education and many have come from other countries and cultures. I have such great respect for their accomplishments and I think they inspire us all."